Hard Luck of the Irish
The first scene of The Crimson Thread, currently showing at the Arvada Center, is somewhat promising, though it does have a bit of that golden-sunlight, Hallmark-card feeling about it. Mary Hanes's writing is lyrical but rarely revelatory. The year is 1869. Two sisters, Eilis and Bridget, are talking on the porch of a stone cottage in a small, poor Irish village. Bridget, whose husband is dying and who already has children, is heavily pregnant. She's also a Fenian and a rabble-rouser, dedicated to freeing Ireland from England's rule and to the belief that the Irish should own the land they farm. A born storyteller, Bridget loves filling the heads of Eilis's children with fairy tales and fantasies.
Eilis's husband, Daniel, driven from his country by the potato famine, is trying to cobble together a living in America. He has written his wife to join him. The men and women who crossed the Atlantic in those days knew that they would never again see their homelands or the familiar faces of their childhoods. Eilis's attempt to reconcile the pull she feels toward her husband with her fear of forgetting her own country, her grief at the idea of leaving Bridget and her worry about how her sister will cope without her makes for interesting drama.
This scene is the most consistently well-acted of the evening. Anne Penner and Diana Dresser make Eilis and Bridget, respectively, seem like real people -- Eilis scattily vulnerable beneath her stoical exterior, Bridget overlaying her fear with a loving calm.
Two more scenes follow, each roughly twenty years apart, and each between a pair of sisters. In the course of the play, all of the major themes of turn-of-the-century Irish history and literature are sounded: hunger and poverty; the exodus from the homeland; the terrifying, disease-ridden boat passage to America; the struggle to survive in a strange country; the immigrant girls working inhuman hours to make a living.
The second scene takes place in Massachusetts, between Eilis's daughters Kathleen and Fionnuala. Kathleen has lost a son and her husband to the sea and is contemplating suicide. (Hanes must surely be thinking here of John Millington Synge's moving evocation of the lives of Aran Island fishermen and their wives in Riders to the Sea.) I've liked the work of Elgin Kelley, who plays Kathleen, in such past productions as Metamorphoses and Stop Kiss, but here she's overwrought, twitchy and distractingly sudden in her movements. It's clear that the actress herself is trembling with genuine feeling, but it's trapped inside her body; nothing leaks out to touch the emotions of the viewer. Kathleen is rescued by the gentle intercession of Fionnuala, played with simplicity and grace by Karen LaMoureaux.
The third segment centers on the 1911 Triangle Factory fire in New York, in which 145 workers, who had been deliberately locked in the building by the owners, died. Union organizer Maggie -- Fionnuala's daughter and heir to great-aunt Bridget's passion for justice -- prepares a speech to galvanize the workers of New York to action. She is interrupted by her sister Nora, who has come to tell her that their mother is dying. The sudden juxtaposition of the family tragedy with the tragedy of the fire strains credulity, and it's hard not to feel impatient as Maggie speaks of her sisters in the union and Nora complains that Maggie is neglecting her -- the flesh-and-blood little sister. The situation, as well as the relationship between the siblings, feels undeveloped. Maggie never voices the questions about her dying mother that any normal daughter would ask: Is she in pain? Is she conscious? Is she able to eat? Has she asked for me? Fionnuala's sickness seems little more than a pretext to set the action in motion. It doesn't help that Jessica Austgen's performance as Nora is stagy and high-pitched. Like Kelley, Austgen is a serious local talent, and when good actresses go this bad, I have to wonder if the problem isn't with Jane Page's direction. Josephine Hall, as Maggie, becomes melodramatic in her arguments with Nora, but she has an expressive voice and a strong presence, and her final monologue, which describes how a young girl set her hat afloat before leaping from the burning factory, is beautifully delivered.
The Crimson Thread is a slight and sentimental piece, but I think it would have charm if acted with delicacy, color, and a miniaturist precision.
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